The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As the subheading “Rome, 15—” explains, the setting is sixteenth century Rome, Italy. A Catholic bishop lies on his bed, near death. He has summoned his nephews or sons—he is not always sure which—to impart his instructions for his burial in his present church, Saint Praxed’s.

The Bishop’s primary consideration is that his tomb must outshine the tomb of his old rival, Gandolf, presumably his predecessor as bishop, now dead and buried inside the church, as was customary for high-ranking church leaders. The speaker cherishes the idea that old Gandolf always envied him, especially for his beautiful mistress. The Bishop wants Gandolf to envy his superior tomb as well and plans to enjoy this envy throughout eternity.

The monologue opens with a garbled quote from Ecclesiastes about the vanity of worldly interests. Yet the rest of his long speech reveals him as vain, greedy, and hypocritical, interested only in possessions, pleasures, and besting his rivals. On occasion the Bishop interrupts his instructions about his tomb to utter pious phrases that a bishop would be expected to say, but he himself has not followed these precepts.

Gandolf has already beaten the Bishop to the choice location for his vault, much to the Bishop’s annoyance, but he consoles himself that his own spot is satisfactory and that his vault will be much more elaborate. He knows exactly what he wants for every detail. It should be made of the best...

(The entire section is 533 words.)